The Chipmunks: Ross Bagdasarian Jr. & Janice Karman Years after his father created a hit singing group of anthropomorphic rodents called The Chipmunks, Ross Bagdasarian Jr. made it his mission to revive his dad's beloved characters. Over the last 40 years, Ross Jr. and his wife Janice have built The Chipmunks into a billion dollar media franchise – run out of their home in Santa Barbara, California. PLUS in our postscript "How You Built That," how Daniel Clark-Webster and his three friends came up with RompHim – a company specializing in male rompers.
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The Chipmunks: Ross Bagdasarian Jr. & Janice Karman

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The Chipmunks: Ross Bagdasarian Jr. & Janice Karman

ROSS BAGDASARIAN JR.: We are told by the record executive, Ross, Janice, I want you guys to take The Chipmunks on the road. We want you to take them. These are the seven cities we want you to go to. And make this album a hit in these seven cities. And if you do that, we will give you a big national promotion. We hit the road. We, in fact, make the album a hit in each one of the seven cities.

We come back to the record executive. The record executive tells Janice and me, well, we're not actually going to do the national release and the big marketing. I said, well, wait. I said, you told us that if we - he said, if you don't have it in writing, you don't have it.



From NPR it's HOW I BUILT THIS, a show about innovators, entrepreneurs, idealists and the stories behind the movements they built. I'm Guy Raz. And on today's show how a husband and wife team built a billion-dollar brand around three singing chipmunks.


RAZ: If you were to build, say, a pantheon or a Mt. Rushmore of Saturday morning cartoons of the 1980s, a statue to "Alvin And The Chipmunks" would be right there alongside "The Smurfs," the "Gummi Bears," "Inspector Gadget." It was one of NBC's biggest hits - three singing rodents - Alvin, Simon, Theodore and their exasperated but kind manager/foster dad, Dave Seville.


BAGDASARIAN JR.: (As Dave Seville) Has anyone seen my tie?

(As Simon Seville) You're wearing it, Dave.

RAZ: Now, all these voices...


JANICE KARMAN: (As Theodore Seville) Don't forget your mittens, Dave.

RAZ: ...Theodore, Alvin, Simon, Dave - they were all voiced by two people.


BAGDASARIAN JR.: (As Dave Seville) Am I forgetting anything?

(As Alvin Seville) Me.

RAZ: Ross Bagdasarian Jr. and his wife, Janice.

KARMAN: I'm Theodore.

BAGDASARIAN JR.: And I'm Alvin and Simon and Dave.

RAZ: All right, got you, OK.

KARMAN: Do you want us to talk at half speed?


RAZ: So Ross and Janice didn't just voice the characters. They pretty much ran and run the company that is Alvin and the Chipmunks - the movies, the merch, the TV syndication, the live shows. All of that's brought in billions - billions of dollars for studios and networks and arenas and even quite a bit for Ross and Janice. And that's in part because unlike most other creative people in Hollywood, Ross and Janice own The Chipmunks. They own the intellectual property.

And so Chipmunks Inc. is pretty much a family business run out of Ross and Janice's house near Santa Barbara, Calif. Now, they didn't actually invent The Chipmunks. The actual inventor was Ross's dad, Ross Sr.


ROSS BAGDASARIAN SR.: (Singing) I told the witch doctor I was in love with you. I told the witch doctor I was in love with you.

RAZ: Back in 1958, Ross Sr. was a struggling songwriter who was looking for a break. And that break came when he figured out a way to change the pitch of his singing voice. And the result - "The Witch Doctor" song.


BAGDASARIAN SR.: (Singing) Ooh, ooh, ooh, ah, ah, ooh, ooh, walla walla bing bang. Ooh, ooh, ooh, ah, ah, bing, bang, walla walla bing bang (ph).

RAZ: So this song became a hit. And Ross soon came up with this concept that it was sung by these anthropomorphic rodents he called The Chipmunks. And all of a sudden, Ross Sr.'s career took off. The Chipmunks became a radio show and then a cartoon on television. And for Ross Jr., he watched his dad become famous.

BAGDASARIAN JR.: A hundred percent it changed literally overnight. First with "Witch Doctor," which was, like, March 1958, and then, of course, The Chipmunks were that November-December '58. So we got a swimming pool. So I was much more impressed that we had a swimming pool than that my dad was on the "The Ed Sullivan Show" doing the "Witch Doctor" or Dick Clark's "American Bandstand" or whatever.

I remember he would always bring my brother and sister and I into his den and play, whether it was "Witch Doctor" or "The Chipmunk Song" or whatever. And we loved when Alvin started talking back to our dad. We just fell in love with not just the song, but the audacity of that little character because we didn't really talk back to my dad that much. So we thought Alvin really had a lot of spunk that we admired.

RAZ: What was your dad like? Was he - was he - I mean, I'm thinking of the guy who wrote the - who sang and wrote the "Witch Doctor." And...


RAZ: Was he this impresario? Was he charismatic? Was he silly, or...

BAGDASARIAN JR.: You know what? He was all of that, Guy. He was bigger than life. He was sort of the Armenian version of "Zorba The Greek," so - all 5'7" of him. But you always thought - and everyone who met him thought that he was 6'5". He just carried himself that way.

But he was funny. He was incredibly creative. He loved music and really thought of himself as a musician. He loved songwriting and started writing songs when he was 16 years old, driving a truck in the vineyards of Fresno. And his first song was called "Nuts To You." So from nuts came little chipmunks.

RAZ: Yeah. So when you were a kid, Ross, did you think that you would be involved in the family business?

BAGDASARIAN JR.: A hundred percent no. You know, growing up, I didn't even want to go to the recording sessions. My dad would say, hey, do you want to come and see how we do this and what - I go, yeah, no, Pop, I got a big little league game here, so I'm going to not make it to that. But growing up, as I started to realize what kind of a career was I heading for, the only thing I was certain of while my dad was still alive was that I wasn't going to be involved with The Chipmunks or what my dad had done not because I didn't love what he had created, but because they were such big shoes to fill that I didn't want to try and step into that.

RAZ: So I know, Ross, that I think you were 22 or 23 when your dad died. He was super young, like, just in his early 50s.


RAZ: What did he want you to do with your life?

BAGDASARIAN JR.: Well, after my dad passed away - and before he had passed away, he said, I really want to encourage you to go to law school. And I just hated that idea. But when he passed away, all of a sudden you saw the kind of folks coming out of the woodwork that would try and take whether it was music publishing from the family or wineries and vineyards that he had built up over the years.

And I realized that my dad wanted me to go to law school obviously not to become a lawyer, but basically to have a kind of a mental martial arts protection because he always had said, look; there's creating what you do and then there's continuing to own what you do. And those are tough things to do at both times unless you know how to protect yourself and contracts and so forth.

So after he passed away, I immediately enrolled in law school. So I graduated three years later, in '75, passed the bar, wasn't going to practice law but wanted to know that with the music publishing and the things that I would hope to create later on, I wanted to know how to hold onto them as my dad had done.

RAZ: And did you - I mean, at that point, were you already thinking about, you know, ways to revive The Chipmunks?

BAGDASARIAN JR.: Yes. After my dad had passed away, I would go up into his office and just listen to the songs that he had done. I watched the old TV shows that he had done, "The Alvin Show." And I just thought I didn't want The Chipmunks to pass away as suddenly as my dad did. And I wanted to figure out some way to try and bring them back. So when I met Janice - and she had loved the characters growing up.

KARMAN: Uh-huh (ph).

BAGDASARIAN JR.: And it was one of the shows that her folks let her see. So I now had another believer with me. And I said, I - Jan, I just want to see if we can do this for, you know, just a year to bring, you know, kind of a tribute to my dad. And then we'll go and do, you know, of course, all the other things that we're interested in doing.

RAZ: Can I just go back for a sec? Because I want to ask Janice about where you were at this point because you were, like - you were an actor in LA, right?


RAZ: And so how did you and Ross meet?

KARMAN: Well, we met at a health food vegetarian restaurant. And I went up to...

RAZ: This is in LA?

KARMAN: In LA. And I saw a friend of mine who was having dinner with Ross, who I didn't know. And I went up to her to say hello and was introduced to Ross. And the following day, I got a bouquet of flowers where I was working. And the next day I got another bouquet. And they were all signed by Ross. But I hadn't remembered his name, so I didn't know who was sending me these flowers.

BAGDASARIAN JR.: I made quite the impression, as you can tell.

KARMAN: (Laughter).

RAZ: Yeah. You must have, yeah.

BAGDASARIAN JR.: (Laughter).

KARMAN: These flowers went on for several weeks. And finally he called. He said, hi, Jan, this is Ross. I said, Ross, thank you for those flowers. They're beautiful. Who are you (laughter)?

BAGDASARIAN JR.: And from that...

KARMAN: And then he asked me on a date. And it took about three years for me to come around.

RAZ: Wow, three years.

KARMAN: Right. And so he took me to his father's office at night. And it was - and I'm going up the elevator. And I'm thinking, where are we going? And I didn't tell anybody I was going out with this guy. And what are we doing in this building? And then he put on the - we walked into an office and he put on the old chipmunk shows. And I thought, wow (laughter), this is interesting.

And then he told me he was the son of Ross Bagdasarian. And I said, oh, my God, that was one of the few cartoon shows I watched and loved them. So then he said, do you think they would be viable today? And I said, I would think so.

BAGDASARIAN JR.: And I had enlisted her on my impossible quest, my little Don Quixote...

KARMAN: (Laughter).

BAGDASARIAN JR.: ...Fighting these little windmills to get The Chipmunks...

RAZ: To get The Chipmunks back.


RAZ: So, I mean, you just, like, started trying to pitch people on this concept?

BAGDASARIAN JR.: Yeah. Well, first, we went to CBS because they had run the old shows, "The Alvin Show." So that seemed like a natural place to go. And they said, listen; we thought - we loved what your dad did. We thought it was great. But we think history has moved on. And it had its wonderful time, and that's really over. So then we went to the music side of things. And I don't know if they had just spoken to the people at CBS...

KARMAN: (Laughter).

BAGDASARIAN JR.: ...But they said...

KARMAN: It's a small industry.

BAGDASARIAN JR.: ...You know, that's a wonderful - wonderful characters, and your dad had a great success, but we think that's - time has passed. And you guys should move on to something else.

RAZ: Wow.

BAGDASARIAN JR.: You're young and capable and off you go.

RAZ: And did this just continue to happen? You would just go to studios and production companies and they would just turn you down?

BAGDASARIAN JR.: This went on for...

KARMAN: Everyone turned us...


KARMAN: ...Down.

BAGDASARIAN JR.: (Laughter).

KARMAN: For years.

RAZ: And so - but why did you stick with it? I mean, if, you know, at that point, you're - I guess you're in your 20s.


RAZ: You've got a law degree.

BAGDASARIAN JR.: (Laughter).

RAZ: You've got all these possibilities. You're married at this point. So how long did you, you know, keep going out and getting rejected? I mean, how long was that period of time?

KARMAN: Well, first of all, all those noes fueled Ross and actually fueled me, as well. So...

BAGDASARIAN JR.: And I would always say, Janice, write their names down.

KARMAN: (Laughter).

BAGDASARIAN JR.: We're going - when we make this big, we're going to - when we see them again, we're going to - oh, now you want it? Well, we're not going to give it to you.

KARMAN: And I, like a fool, would take out my little pad and look at their name tags. And could you spell your last name for me?

RAZ: But, I mean, really, how did you keep going at it when all these people were saying, no, no, no? I mean, weren't - did you feel dejected? Didn't you just feel, like, humiliated? Or did you...

BAGDASARIAN JR.: No. Honestly, I didn't. I just felt, well, I am going to show them they're wrong. I know this is going to work. Janice believes in it.

KARMAN: (Laughter).

BAGDASARIAN JR.: There's two of us, for goodness sakes. So no, I was just more and more set on what - however long this took.

RAZ: Yeah. But, I mean, look; to be devil's advocate, you can understand...

BAGDASARIAN JR.: (Laughter).

RAZ: For a moment, you can understand why a television executive at the time, somebody who's trying to find the next big thing...


RAZ: ...And who's sort of incentivized to do it would sort of look at your proposal and say, oh, that's a throwback to the '50s. We're doing, like - we're doing really crazy things now. I mean, you could kind of understand that.

KARMAN: You know, Ross taught me the power of tenacity. Guy, he pursued me for three years every single day.

RAZ: Yeah.

KARMAN: So (laughter)...

BAGDASARIAN JR.: Because I knew we were right. I knew this was the perfect person for me. And not to equate Janice with The Chipmunks, but...

KARMAN: (Laughter).

BAGDASARIAN JR.: ...But I honestly believe when you really believe in something so clearly, it's so clear for you as that was for me - I didn't care what anybody else said. We were going to make this happen if it took a year or if it took three decades.

RAZ: But why did you believe that it would work? I mean, why would...


RAZ: When all of these experts - I'm just curious. Ross, obviously, we know what happened. But when all of these people who were experts in television were saying...


RAZ: ...Look; this is a - this is old. This is a tired franchise. Like, you know, just enjoy life and...


RAZ: I mean, why did you think they were wrong?

BAGDASARIAN JR.: Well, two things. Number one, what we came to realize is that there actually are no experts. You know, nobody really knows. And so I was just willing to put my belief above what other people were telling us. And Janice felt the same way. We thought they were good characters.

KARMAN: Yeah, I felt that, you know, in listening to "The Chipmunk Song" and the "Witch Doctor" and "Alvin For President," that there was this relationship with Dave and this chipmunk that kept pushing his buttons. And I believed that relationship and so did millions of other people. And he really - that Dave and Alvin really endeared themselves to us. And I thought, if we could get that relationship in these shows, then it could happen again.

RAZ: So what happened? What was the turning point?

KARMAN: The turning point was a disc jockey in Philadelphia at 3 o'clock in the morning played a Blondie song and sped it up and told his listeners that it was the latest song from this album "Chipmunk Punk" (ph). He was being completely facetious.

RAZ: What was the Blondie song?

KARMAN: "Call Me."



BLONDIE: (Singing) Cover me with kisses, baby. Cover me with love. Roll me in designer sheets...

RAZ: And he just sped it up and said it was a chipmunk...


RAZ: ...Version of "Call Me."

KARMAN: Just, you know, he was probably bored. And his switchboard lit up. And all these people called wanting to know where they could get the album. And a record company back east found out about this and called us up and said, would you be interested in doing a chipmunk - we didn't even listen to the end of the sentence. We said, yes.

RAZ: It was just some random small - was it a small...

KARMAN: Small.

RAZ: ...Record company?

KARMAN: Yeah. They're...

RAZ: They said would you do a "Chipmunk Punk" album?


KARMAN: Would you be interested in a "Chipmunk Punk" album? But we were very up for it. And as it turns out, it sold over a million albums overnight. And then the people at CBS, NBC and ABC, they - you know, all of a sudden, they wanted to have lunch.


BLONDIE: (Singing) Can share the wine. Call me.

RAZ: And was it get relatively cheap to produce that record?

BAGDASARIAN JR.: Very inexpensive. I don't like to say cheap. I would say inexpensive.


RAZ: Wow. So you put that record out. It just sells like crazy. And then what? And then television follows, television companies start to call you?

BAGDASARIAN JR.: Well, right after that, as Janice mentioned, not only were the TV folks who we had gone to much more receptive and now interested, but it also gave us a chance to look at doing more music because obviously, if it sold so well - so we were approached to do not only a Christmas album but also - and we thought, OK, what would be, you know, the furthest thing away from this album? Because we didn't want to do a repeat of that.

So "Urban Cowboy" had come out. And we thought, you know what? Let's go to Nashville and record "Urban Chipmunk." So we took songs from Kenny Rogers and a whole bunch of - "I Love A Rainy Night," "Thank God I'm A Country Boy" - all of these different songs. But one of the things that Janice wanted to do in that album was now create some dialogue, some stories...

KARMAN: Just some personality and not just, you know, straight music.

BAGDASARIAN JR.: Not just song, song, song, song.

RAZ: Yeah.

KARMAN: And so that - so I said to Ross, so how do we do this? How did your dad do the voices and the dialogue? And he said, I have no idea (laughter).

RAZ: Yeah.

BAGDASARIAN JR.: I was playing little league. What did I know?


RAZ: Yeah.

KARMAN: I went back to the house and I played his father's tapes. And I saw that he talked at half speed. And so I went back and I said, OK, this is what we do.

RAZ: So you're - you guys are recording this - like, you're speaking very...


RAZ: ...Clearly and slowly, so then when you speed up the tape, it sounds like chipmunks.


KARMAN: Well, it sounds - it's the same speed as we speak, but it's at a higher pitch.


RAZ: Just a - like, a logistical question - when you started to do the voices for the characters, how did you - just give me a sense. Like, give me a little taste of - obviously, everyone listening knows you are Dave, Ross. It's obvious. But...

BAGDASARIAN JR.: (Laughter).

RAZ: ...Like, how do you record Alvin? Like, just give me a line of how you would record Alvin.

BAGDASARIAN JR.: Well, I will do that, but I want to also say that Janice was just wonderful as Theodore right from the beginning. And I was still so tied to what my dad had done, which was very clear - and when my dad did Alvin, it was hello, Dave. How are you doing today? Very stilted, and it didn't feel real.

So Janice would say, Ross, you know what? Don't try and do an impersonation of your dad either as David Seville or as Alvin or Simon. You know, loosen him up. Make it a little bit more your own. And so now, after all of these years, I've obviously gotten better. And so now Alvin is more fluid for me. And even though I have to talk more slowly - Dave, listen. OK, I know. You're going to continue to talk about blah, blah, blah whatever.


BAGDASARIAN JR.: (As David Seville) Alvin.

(As Alvin Seville) My name's not Alvin. It's Santa.

(As David Seville) All right, Santa. I'd like a word with you and your elves.

KARMAN: And then, Guy, I would say, Ross, slower.


KARMAN: (Laughter).


KARMAN: Slower.

BAGDASARIAN JR.: Dave, I remember what you said the last time, so could I please just leave?


BAGDASARIAN JR.: (As Alvin Seville) Dave, can I talk to you a minute?

(As David Seville) There's nothing more to say, Alvin.

(As Alvin Seville) Are you still mad at me, Dave?

(As David Seville) No.

RAZ: So how did television actually then end up happening? Because it happened, I guess, in 1983 that the Chipmunks cartoon comes back on TV.

BAGDASARIAN JR.: Right. But before that, Guy, in 1981, Janice and I had been taking around a Christmas idea, a Christmas special, from probably around '78 or so. So after "Chipmunk Punk" comes out and does so well and then "Urban Chipmunk," NBC said to us, hey, I know we told you we thought that was a terrible idea and we didn't like The Chipmunks, but we now think with those two platinum albums maybe that Christmas special is a good idea.

RAZ: Wow. Did you - any executives that had previously rejected you, did you end up meeting with them and having - were - like, were they begging you to come back?

BAGDASARIAN JR.: Yes. And I'm not going to give you names, but...

RAZ: (Laughter).

BAGDASARIAN JR.: ...Many of those people that were on our list.

RAZ: Nice.

KARMAN: I had to pull out my old list.

BAGDASARIAN JR.: (Laughter).

RAZ: So when they approached you and they said, we want to do a Christmas special, did you have a concept of what the cartoon would look like, how it would be animated? And did you already have that laid out, or did you have to...


RAZ: ...Kind of figure that out?

KARMAN: We didn't even - we had never written anything before. And then when they said, so who do you see writing it, Ross said, we're going to write it. And I looked at him across the room. I glared at him.

BAGDASARIAN JR.: (Laughter).

KARMAN: Like, what are you saying? And again, because out of necessity, we wrote it. And then, no, we didn't have a look. We didn't have - we - the voices we still weren't experts at, and - yeah.

RAZ: How did you even know what to do? I mean, obviously, you know, you're both super smart and talented, but, I mean, you're creating an animation studio overnight. You're standing up an animation studio which, by the way, in 1983 was very expensive because it's still hand-drawn stuff, right?

BAGDASARIAN JR.: Right, exactly.

KARMAN: Well, Ross and I have done everything - everything we've ventured into we've known nothing about. So it's the...

BAGDASARIAN JR.: We start from stupid, Guy.

KARMAN: We start from stupid.


KARMAN: It's the hardest way and the best way to learn. And you just go step by step. OK, we need to create characters. OK, we need to know what this world looks like.

BAGDASARIAN JR.: And we were really very fortunate because some of the great animators from Warner Bros., including Chuck Jones and Phil Monroe and Virgil Ross and these guys who had done the greatest Bugs Bunny cartoons in the '40s and '50s, were available. And they weren't being used.

RAZ: Wow.

BAGDASARIAN JR.: And Janice and I hired all of them to make the Christmas special, "A Chipmunk Christmas."


ROSS BAGDASARIAN JR. AND JANICE KARMAN: (Singing as Alvin Seville, Simon Seville and Theodore Seville) Dashing through the stores on a chipmunk's skating board, through the crowds we play...

BAGDASARIAN JR.: (Singing as Alvin Seville) Shopping all the way.

BAGDASARIAN JR. AND KARMAN: (Singing as Alvin Seville, Simon Seville and Theodore Seville) Stockings hung with care. Soon Santa will be here. What fun it is to shop all day...

BAGDASARIAN JR.: (Singing as Alvin Seville) When Dave is nowhere near.

BAGDASARIAN JR. AND KARMAN: (Singing as Alvin Seville, Simon Seville and Theodore Seville) Oh, Christmas time, Christmas time.

RAZ: After that Christmas special on NBC - clearly it was a success because then NBC cut a deal with you. What was that first deal? Was it a - one season of "Alvin And The Chipmunks" that they committed to?

BAGDASARIAN JR.: Yeah, it was always that sort of wonderful first series deal. So it was - it could be as long as five years, but it was one year at a time. And we got very little money for it. Back in those days, it was like $210,000 for a half hour of shows. So there wasn't much...

RAZ: And that was supposed to cover all your costs?

BAGDASARIAN JR.: Oh, absolutely. So - and we were used...

KARMAN: And we were putting our own money into it.


KARMAN: Always putting our own money in.

BAGDASARIAN JR.: Oh, yeah, we were used to going into our own pocket.

RAZ: Yeah.


RAZ: OK, so the show launches in 1983. This was on Saturday mornings, of course.

BAGDASARIAN JR.: That's right. And we were against Bugs Bunny on ABC and CBS, who didn't want us. We had gone to them first because they said, why do we need The Chipmunks? We've got Charlie Brown and Snoopy.

RAZ: Yeah.

BAGDASARIAN JR.: And we said, well, you know, we could be - you know, you could have two. You could have Snoopy - anyway, so we turned out to be against poor Charlie Brown and Snoopy. And the Chipmunk series was a giant hit right from the beginning.

RAZ: Oh, I remember.


RAZ: So I mean, it's interesting because, you know, you think about - I mean, just as a consumer - right? - you're thinking about, like, Mickey Mouse and Alvin and Bugs Bunny and the Peanuts gang. And they're all great. Like, we love them all. We have these warm feelings about them. But actually, from the perspective of the creators of these characters, like, you're - these are competitors, right?

BAGDASARIAN JR.: Yeah. Well, they...

KARMAN: But...

BAGDASARIAN JR.: Go ahead, Jan.

KARMAN: No, I guess. I never see them as competitors.

RAZ: You didn't, like, want to just crush Mickey?

KARMAN: No, I didn't...

RAZ: All right.

KARMAN: ...Want to crush him (laughter).

RAZ: All right, OK.

KARMAN: I wanted to put my arms around him and...

RAZ: All right, OK.


RAZ: All right, fair enough.

BAGDASARIAN JR.: Yeah, we honestly always felt - it was like our conversation with CBS when they said, well, we've already got, you know, Snoopy and Charlie Brown. We always thought that good shows or good characters can coexist. We didn't feel like we needed to go to war with anybody. We just wanted to create something that was unique to us.

KARMAN: But, Guy, to be honest, you know, if the executive says in a rude way, why do I need you, yes, then we want to crush the executive.


RAZ: Yeah, you want to crush them, right?

KARMAN: But we don't want to crush...

RAZ: Yes.

KARMAN: ...You know, Snoopy. We want to crush the executive.


RAZ: In just a moment, a deal gone bad that put The Chipmunks on life support and how Ross and Janice revived the franchise. I'm Guy Raz, and you're listening to HOW I BUILT THIS from NPR.


RAZ: Hey, welcome back to HOW I BUILT THIS from NPR. I'm Guy Raz. So it's 1985, and Ross and Janice get through the first season of "Alvin And The Chipmunks" for NBC. And even though the show is reaching huge audiences, Ross and Janice aren't making a whole lot of money at this point. Remember, the deal they signed with NBC was for $200,000 for the whole season. But what they did have was something much more valuable - the rights to The Chipmunks.

I mean, you guys own everything.


RAZ: You own the master recordings. You own the animations. You own the characters. How is it possible that NBC didn't say, hey, if you want to deal with us, you know, we own the rights to this thing and all the licensing?

BAGDASARIAN JR.: Well, you know, because my dad had not only, as you mentioned, set that up - he was the first songwriter who not only owned the publishing but also the master recordings. And that's what - interestingly, when we met Berry Gordy years later, he said, you know, I learned a very valuable thing. When I was writing songs, I decided to found Motown because I wanted to own the master recordings the way your dad did. So it was - my dad was really - not only really this great mix of creativity, but also very, really smart about business. And so I knew that, as my dad had mentioned, there was creating wonderful product, but then there was holding onto the rights to that same thing.

RAZ: Yeah, but, I mean, NBC said, we will make this into a cartoon for you. And you guys had been pitching this for, at that point, six years.

BAGDASARIAN JR.: Right (laughter).

RAZ: I mean, if NBC would've said to you, but these are our terms, I mean, how - would you have just walked away?

BAGDASARIAN JR.: Well, we would've because what we said is, look, we'll produce it. We'll make sure we get the financing together. We'll get a license fee from you. We brought in Kellogg's, so Kellogg's was our sponsor. And Janice and I wrote the shows, and then we produced it.

And after the first season, they came to Janice and I. They said, OK, we'd like to expand it. Now we want you guys to do an hour, not a half an hour. And we just said, we can't even make a half hour we're proud of. So we - and we can't work any longer unless you make more than seven days in the week, so we're going to turn it down.

KARMAN: And she said, no, and Janice, nobody turns down more shows (laughter).

BAGDASARIAN JR.: But we did.

RAZ: So you are - you're making these shows for NBC. You're obviously just not making any real money from the shows because it's going to pay the production costs. But you are getting all this visibility, so - but you're also running a business. The chip - I'm - at what point did you guys sit down and say, you know what? This is a business. Like, let's think about how to make this into something really, really big. What was the - what did - what was it that you started to think about?

KARMAN: You know, Guy, we were just sitting at home all the time. So we didn't - and you see the numbers, you see the ratings, but they don't really translate into people. You know, you can imagine, but you just don't get it. And...

BAGDASARIAN JR.: Back in those days, Guy, we were getting - like, 40 percent of the audience was watching (laughter)...

KARMAN: And, like, 20 million a week, or 15 to 20 million a week - so finally, we got an - we did a live show, and it was at Madison Square Garden.

RAZ: You just had people dress up in chipmunks.

KARMAN: Yeah, we did the voices, and did design the costumes and got a story together. And we didn't have time to tour it, but we go to Madison Square Garden. And when we went to the box office, the guy said, oh, I didn't know you were coming; I sold your tickets. It was sold out.

RAZ: Oh, and you had gone to see the show.

KARMAN: Yeah, to see the show - and he's - and I said, but we are the chip - anyway, he let us sit in the aisle. And for the first time, we saw fans. We saw kids waving Chipmunk banners and screaming, and the place was filled.

RAZ: Wow.

KARMAN: And it was such a moment for us that we'll never forget. It was like, oh, my gosh, there are people. There are kids. They like the show. They like the characters.

RAZ: So, I mean, your business really became the Chipmunks. I mean, it was the television show on NBC. It was records. It was merchandising, live shows, and I guess, like, syndication, right?

BAGDASARIAN JR.: Yeah. And this is one of the funny business stories. And I found it interesting only because later on, it turned out to be such a windfall that we did not know about. But they said, look, what's going to happen is that CBS, Viacom is going to run your dad's old shows - "The Alvin Show" - against us because now that you're bringing the Chipmunks back so successfully with the albums, and the Christmas special and now the new series, you have to get Viacom to not do it on Saturday morning. And we want you to offer them the syndication rights for the new series if they'll just not run up against us.

And so Janice and I, not knowing the value of syndication, went to Viacom, CBS and said, OK, if you just won't run against our new shows on NBC, we'll give you the syndication rights to our new series. And they, very full of themselves, said, no, we're not going to do that deal. And then a couple years later, we sold those rights for $25 million.

KARMAN: (Laughter) We (unintelligible) - score was something.

RAZ: Wow. And that's - and that was where the money was.

BAGDASARIAN JR.: ...Which we did not know. We were...

KARMAN: Yeah - which we were going to give away.

BAGDASARIAN JR.: Yeah (laughter).

RAZ: And was that syndication - I mean, so the syndication rights were yours. You didn't have to share that with NBC.

BAGDASARIAN JR.: No, not at - NBC didn't get a piece at all.

RAZ: So $25 million is a tremendous amount of money now, but in 1985, even more money. I mean, what did that mean? Did that - I mean, I think anybody listening would just assume that that was it. You guys were set for life.

BAGDASARIAN JR.: Yeah, well, first of all, it was very exciting. And it was just a number - I was always a kid - even when I was watching the - you know, "The Price Is Right" as a 6-year-old, I knew what the dishwasher would go for or the - and my mom would always say, how do you know this? You've not bought dishwashers and - but I always had a sense of what a price for something was going to be.

So I had just set that price, and I didn't change it until we got it. And Janice and I so wanted to make something we were really proud of, not just something that was successful, because the TV show was obviously tremendously successful, but we were never able to give it the kind of quality that we had hoped to do. So yes, you would think we would be set. But because we always wanted to do something we'd also be proud of, we took most of that money and made an animated feature, "The Chipmunk Adventure." And that - which came out in '87.

RAZ: And that movie did pretty well, right?

BAGDASARIAN JR.: Yeah, it did well. But we didn't, at least in that initial - we didn't get our money back back in those days because unfortunately, we signed on with a distributor that was going to put X number of dollars into marketing of distribute - we were - they spent less than 900,000 marketing the movie - and including the prints and advertising. So it did OK, but it did not remotely get us our money back until many DVD sales later.

KARMAN: Ross wrote a little article on that experience making the movie called "The Agony And The Agony."


KARMAN: Because it was...

BAGDASARIAN JR.: ...Hard to find a bright spot in that one.

RAZ: Yeah, right.

Here's where I'm curious about - because the show airs on NBC, and you are doing original, new episodes until 1990, and then I guess it's in syndication, and then you guys decide to move on, you basically leave NBC and cut a deal with Universal to bring the show back. So what was that about?

BAGDASARIAN JR.: So one of the things that they wanted to do was create their own Mickey Mouse. And they had had Woody Woodpecker for years, but Woody didn't have the sort of resonance for generations the way Alvin did, and certainly didn't the way Mickey Mouse did. And they had seen that when we had gone head to head, whether it was with Mickey Mouse in an album, or a TV show or what have you, that the Chipmunks not only held their own, but did very, very well and usually came out on top.

So Universal loved that, gee, the - Alvin could be our Mickey Mouse. And so the idea then was, they were going to create a - an animation unit for us, and Janice and I were going to run that. And we would, of course, not only do more Chipmunk stuff but a lot of other things that we had showed them that we could do.

RAZ: Wow.

BAGDASARIAN JR.: Yeah, no, we were going to be in their theme parks. And that part actually did happen. But it was going to be this whole smorgasborg (ph) of opportunity. And so for Janice and for me, that was like, oh, my gosh, this sounds fantastic.

RAZ: Yeah. Did you have to give up some of your ownership for that kind of deal?

BAGDASARIAN JR.: They bought a 25 percent share at that point in time. And that, for the opportunity - for what felt like a really exciting opportunity to grow the business in a much larger way felt like a great thing.

RAZ: Did the - the money was going to help you scale.

BAGDASARIAN JR.: Yeah, yeah, and they were going to be also putting money into development and production of all of these different things. And then shortly after we signed that deal, all the folks who wanted to do that were gone.

RAZ: What do you mean they were gone?

BAGDASARIAN JR.: They all left. And so now you are...

RAZ: (Laughter) No.

BAGDASARIAN JR.: Yeah, we wound up in a place that wasn't the same as we thought it was when we came in.

RAZ: So what do you mean? Like, all the people who signed the deal with Universal were gone, but you still had this deal with Universal. I mean, they would still have the commitments to - I mean, I guess, presumably, to make movies and to do all kinds of stuff. So why wouldn't you just do it?

BAGDASARIAN JR.: Yeah, well, we certainly wanted to do it.

KARMAN: (Laughter).

BAGDASARIAN JR.: But you would - you'd have to ask them why you - why they didn't wind up doing much of any of it.

KARMAN: You know, somebody new comes in, and they have a different vision.

BAGDASARIAN JR.: Yeah, so those were not our happy years, and we wound up leaving that.

RAZ: Sorry, but what I don't understand is, what happened? Did they stop answering your calls? Because you were presumably working on ideas and just - were you pitching it, and they were saying no, or were they just ignoring you? What was the dynamic?

BAGDASARIAN JR.: It was a - yeah, no, it was a combination of - it started out very excited. And then as some of the folks who had brought us in, you know, would leave, then it'd be harder to get through to them. Then it would become no returned calls. And yeah, it was just - you felt very much like the orphan child that was brought in to be, you know, the favorite son, and then all of a sudden, you aren't.

RAZ: So did Alvin and the Chipmunks basically drop off the map at that point?

BAGDASARIAN JR.: Pretty much. Yeah, pretty much.

RAZ: Wow.

BAGDASARIAN JR.: And so that's why we said to them, listen, we really - we want to do this, that and the other. We've got a lot of opportunity, if not here at Universal. There's all kinds of interest outside, so we can do - folks in Japan want to put Chipmunks stores together. Folks in Europe want us to make more - so we'll just do all of those things.

RAZ: And they said...

BAGDASARIAN JR.: And they said, no. No, we can't - we don't want to have too many cooks in the kitchen. And I said, there's no cook in the kitchen. So there's not a pot, not a pan. There's nobody. There's no cooks here.

RAZ: So you guys were just hanging around, pulling your hair out, trying to get things off the ground - and nothing?

BAGDASARIAN JR.: Yeah. It wasn't at all the kind of opportunity that we had hoped for. And finally, in 2000, end of 2001, we were able to go our separate way, and...

RAZ: You sued them to get back your company.

BAGDASARIAN JR.: Yeah. We had to. You know, you - unfortunately, you have to protect your characters. And sometimes, you try...

KARMAN: When you've exhausted every other - you know, because you don't want to go into this. I'm telling everybody. You don't want to go into this until you've exhausted all other options and you're up against the wall.

BAGDASARIAN JR.: But once you're there, you just have to be committed to that, and we always were.

KARMAN: And we stand - we do - really do stand very united on that front.

RAZ: But does it - I mean, it's got to eat at you. It's like - it's got to be something that you just can't get out of your head that must affect your sleep and just - your thought process, and it just must become all-consuming.

KARMAN: Yeah, and you don't understand why.

BAGDASARIAN JR.: And what we've realized is that logic does not play much of a part in any of it.

KARMAN: That's right.

BAGDASARIAN JR.: And that's the thing that's so strange to us because it's like, OK, hold on a minute. You have no interest in this. We are dedicating our entire lives to it. We should be able to find a way to separate this out and go on our merry way. And...

KARMAN: And I tend to try to put something in a different perspective. I say to Ross, this is such a miserable experience that - let's get something out of it. Let's make - you know, this is sort of fascinating, right? (Laughter).

BAGDASARIAN JR.: I didn't find it fascinating - but personally. But Janice always does.

KARMAN: Well, I - but I - no, I have to. I have to put it in a different category than miserable. And so I think, OK, well, I'm going to learn what this process is like. And how do I make this as good as I can make it?

RAZ: That's a very healthy approach to lawsuits. I have to say, I'm inspired.

KARMAN: (Laughter).

RAZ: I'm inspired. I'm just wondering though, I mean, that - from what I've read, the - it was only settled, really, in 2004. So from that 2000-to-2004 period, were you basically in, like, suspended limbo? Like, were you just...

BAGDASARIAN JR.: No, no, no, no, no because - no, because 2001 was really the end of it. The 2004 part was just - that's when the last payment that we had to make to them was actually done.

KARMAN: ...To get our company back.

BAGDASARIAN JR.: Right, so now...

RAZ: So when they...

BAGDASARIAN JR.: Now it was, Guy - now it was about, how do we resurrect the franchise again after it basically is...

RAZ: ...Fell off the map.


KARMAN: Yeah - went into hibernation.

RAZ: How much did you have to pay them to buy back your ownership?

BAGDASARIAN JR.: Two-and-a-half million dollars for their...

RAZ: So that's nothing because they paid you guys a lot more, right?

KARMAN: Right.

BAGDASARIAN JR.: Yeah, exactly.

RAZ: OK, so you guys get out of that deal, and then you're free. And I guess it was at this point that you sign this multi-movie deal with FOX, right?


KARMAN: Right.

RAZ: But by then, the Chipmunks had been kind of, like, off the radar for lots of years, so, I mean, did that affect, you know, your ability to call the shots in that negotiation?

BAGDASARIAN JR.: Well, you know, not totally. Although, you know, you don't ever necessarily get the kind of deal that you want to have. But we were very clear that, you know, we would - as we have always been - be involved in every aspect, and...

KARMAN: And we say, you know, right from the start, listen, we are very proprietary. If you don't want to work with people like this, please, you know, don't because it will get, you know...

RAZ: Like, oh, from the outset, you'll say to the...

KARMAN: From the outset, always.


RAZ: Look, this is what we're like.



RAZ: And we could be a pain in your ass, and we want you to know that.

KARMAN: Well, yeah. And, no, you know, and I don't think we are. I think we're, like, very reasonable and protective of the characters. No, I mean, if we were a pain in the ass, I would say so. But I just - I think - but we're protective of the characters.

RAZ: So is it three movies you've made with Fox now?


RAZ: And I notice - I think it's in the first one where the villain is this record executive.

KARMAN: (Laughter).

RAZ: It's like, chin beard, goatee, I think.


RAZ: David Cross. And is that, like, a kind of an unsubtle, you know...

BAGDASARIAN JR.: (Laughter).

KARMAN: ...Jab.

RAZ: ...Representation of your own experiences in this industry?

BAGDASARIAN JR.: Well, I'll tell you one of the stories, you know, with our music situation was that, in 1982, we are with a record company. And I won't go into specifics of who or - you know, we're going to protect the guilty here.

RAZ: Nah, feel free. Feel free to just spill your guts.


BAGDASARIAN JR.: So we're recording, and the album comes out. And we are told by the record executive, Ross, Janice, I want you guys to take the Chipmunks on the road. These are the seven cities we want you to go to. Travel across the country to these seven cities, and make this album a hit in these seven cities. And if you do that, we will give you a big national promotion. Great, OK.

We hit the road. And I won't get into all of the crazy stuff that happens. But in any event, at the end of the tour, we, in fact, make the album a hit in each one of the seven cities. We come back to the record executive, so excited, after a pretty bruising couple of weeks. And but we're...

KARMAN: Was that all it was?


KARMAN: Couple...

BAGDASARIAN JR.: ...Felt like 12 years. In any event, we're all excited and want to now talk about the national plans that they're going to do. And this is a quote, and it's - so it explains why David Cross is Ian - is that character. So the record executive tells Janice and me, well, we're not actually going to do the national release and the big marketing. But I said, well, wait. I said, you told us that if we would - he said, if you don't have it in writing, you don't have it.

RAZ: Wow.

BAGDASARIAN JR.: So that was a brutal lesson (laughter).

KARMAN: Yeah, we've learned a lot of lessons over the four decades we've been doing this (laughter).

BAGDASARIAN JR.: Full of lessons...

RAZ: You - these movies that Fox made killed it. They did extremely well.

BAGDASARIAN JR.: Yeah (laughter). Oh, yeah.

RAZ: I guess it - I guess they generated almost a billion dollars in revenue.

BAGDASARIAN JR.: Well, over a...

RAZ: Over a billion...

BAGDASARIAN JR.: No, yeah, they - their box office is about a billion, 300,000 million.

RAZ: Wow.

BAGDASARIAN JR.: And if you include the DVD sales, it's over $2 billion in revenue.

RAZ: Well, I'm one of those DVD buyers, so you can thank me.


RAZ: You can send me a thank-you card right here on the air. So...

BAGDASARIAN JR.: Unfortunately, Fox'll send you the thank-you card because we get about 2 cents per DVD.

RAZ: Yeah, right, that's - exactly, like, you get about two - you know, you get a tiny cut of that 1.3 billion. So inevitably, it's going to lead to some kind of clash. It seems like it's just - the way these deals are set up, it's, like, if all of a sudden, it goes well beyond anybody's expectations, they're delighted. But you guys get screwed.

BAGDASARIAN JR.: Well, the economics of it wouldn't have been the frustration for us because once - when we make a deal...

KARMAN: Yeah, we stick to it.

BAGDASARIAN JR.: ...We live by the deal. So that isn't the frustration for us. The frustration for us is wanting to tell a certain kind of story with - reflecting certain kinds of scenes, and dialogue and so forth for the characters that we have spent four decades with. That's, honestly, where the issue would be, not the - how the economics break down.

RAZ: I know that you guys filed a lawsuit against Fox because of some of this frustration. I know you can't talk about all the details of it because it was settled. But, I mean, once you - you know, you have legal action against this company that, essentially, you work with, and then you settle it, you still have to work with them after. I mean, there must be some bad blood. So how does that - how do you interact with folks at Fox? Is it, like, perfectly cordial and normal?


KARMAN: Yeah, everybody puts on their big-boy shorts and gets to work.

RAZ: You know, we have, occasionally, on the show, interviewed husband and wife teams who have built amazing businesses - Kate and Andy Spade...

BAGDASARIAN JR.: Sure, sure.

RAZ: ...Melissa and Doug, you know, of Melissa & Doug, and you guys. And I'm always really impressed when I talk to people who've been married for 37 years with incredible business. And you obviously, clearly, like, not only love each other, but you really respect each other's judgment. And you've carved out different roles for yourself. What's - how did the - is it just, like, serendipitous that it works? Or do you actually...

BAGDASARIAN JR.: No, there's actually a really simple approach that we have. And this was right from the beginning because of our respect for one another. If Janice had a different point of view and she felt more strongly about it than I did, then I would defer to her. If, conversely, I had a stronger feeling about it than she did, she would defer to me.

But right now, because she's writing the shows, and directing them, and designing them and so forth, she really is the driving force of the show. And I'm thrilled, you know, to play a part with Alvin, and Simon and Dave. And...

KARMAN: He gets frustrated with me when I wake him up at 2 in the morning and say, Ross, Ross, I think you could do line 27 better. I think...

BAGDASARIAN JR.: No, not now.

KARMAN: But we do respect each other. We work really well together. And I've thought about that too - about husbands and wives. And I think that it either works - and I could be wrong about this - but I think it either works or it doesn't work. If a couple is committed to, you know, going into therapy and really working on their communications, maybe two people that wouldn't normally be able to work together could work it out. But we just naturally work very, very well together.

RAZ: I mean, you guys scaled this concept in a way that would probably be unimaginable to your dad. I mean, he - obviously, he did well. He made lots of money off Alvin and the Chipmunks and was able to build a great life for his family. But you guys took it to a stratospheric level, a completely different level out of - really, out of the ashes of this concept. I mean, what do you think he would've made of Alvin and the Chipmunks today and what it's become?

BAGDASARIAN JR.: Well, first of all, he would be so proud. But also, because my dad had a very limited attention span on things, I'm sure he would say, what the hell are you guys doing 40 years later?

KARMAN: But I also have to tell you this serendipitous story. We were - in the '80s, we would have to drive down. We had finally moved to Santa Barbara, and we would drive down to L.A. to do pickup lines when - because the show was going to be on two days later. And we'd do our - whoa, oof, oof (ph) and whatever else we had to fill in for the story. And we drove back. It was probably 3 o'clock in the morning. And I just, you know, automatically turn on the TV to just unwind. And Ross said, oh, my God, my dad - I just can't imagine - because the show wasn't coming out the way we wanted, and Ross said, oh, my gosh, I can't imagine what my dad is thinking. And I said, no, no, no. Your dad would be very proud at how hard we're working, how much we're trying. And on the television was his father on - what is it? - "The Greatest Show On Earth?"

BAGDASARIAN JR.: It's called - yeah. It's the Cecil B. DeMille "Greatest Show On Earth." And my dad is in the audience applauding.


RAZ: Wow.

KARMAN: And we looked at the - I couldn't believe it. And we started to cry (laughter). But that was serendipitous, I have to say.

RAZ: Janice Karman and Ross Bagdasarian are the duo behind Alvin and the Chipmunks. By the way, The Chipmunks were actually named after executives of the original record label. Alvin Bennett, Simon Waronker and Theodore Keep were the chief executives of Liberty Records in 1958.


RAZ: Do people ever call you Dave?

BAGDASARIAN JR.: You know what? Sometimes (laughter). Sometimes they do. Or they'll say, you know, you sound so much like that David Seville character.

RAZ: Yeah.

BAGDASARIAN JR.: Did anyone ever tell you that?

RAZ: And then you got to do it, right?

BAGDASARIAN JR.: (Laughter) And hopefully, I'm not going to burn the mic up here doing this, but Alvin.


RAZ: And please stick around because in just a moment, we're going to hear from you about the things you're building.


RAZ: Hey, thanks for sticking around because it's time now for How You Built That. And today's story comes from Daniel Webster-Clark of Chicago. And about a year ago, Daniel and three friends from business school were sitting around on a Friday night, getting ready to go out. And one of them asked, what are you going to wear?

DANIEL WEBSTER-CLARK: And the three guys in the group were sort of lamenting the fact that they kind of felt like our options were to pick among the standard set of khakis and jeans and which button-down you're going with. And that was kind of the extent of the creativity that we had at our fingertips.

RAZ: As the great Morrissey once sang, I would go out tonight, but I haven't got a stitch to wear.

WEBSTER-CLARK: That's the point at which Elaine said, it's funny that you guys feel like you're so limited here. You know, I got a new romper. I got, you know, a new piece to add to my collection. You know, it's a real shame that you guys don't have those in your wardrobe.

RAZ: And at that moment, the guys in the room were, like, excuse me, a romper? And Elaine's like, yeah. You know, it's this one-piece outfit - very lightweight, fun colors. And then she goes into full romper pitch mode. And she says...

WEBSTER-CLARK: Well, hey, actually, I have a ton of rompers in my closet. And I can wear them anywhere I want. I can wear them to the office on a Friday. And I can wear them to the beach.

RAZ: And so right then, before they even went out that night, Elaine, Daniel and two other friends started to ask each other, could this be a thing? Could there be a market for rompers just for guys?

WEBSTER-CLARK: But essentially someone said a lot of guys, you know, wouldn't necessarily want to wear that. And then someone in the group said, oh, I'd call it, you know, a romp-him (ph) instead of a romper.

RAZ: And in case you missed that, someone said I'd call it a romp-him, like R-O-M-P-H-I-M.

WEBSTER-CLARK: And we sort I had a moment of - a stupid laugh. We're like, ha, ha. OK. That's kind of a dumb pun, but, you know, whatever. And then we stopped and said, well, actually, that is kind of catchy and could get people talking. And let's go ahead and see if these things exist.

RAZ: And surprise, surprise - these things did not exist. I mean, maybe you could see them on, like, a high-fashion runway, but not for the average guy. So one thing led to another. Daniel and his business school friends made some sketches. And then they found a factory in Chicago to make a prototype.

WEBSTER-CLARK: The simplest way to describe it is if you took your - a button-down T-shirt and a pair of khaki shorts and kind of sewed them together.

RAZ: And just like rompers for women, the RompHim has fun colors and interesting prints. And once they got all of the prototypes, Daniel and his partners started to wear the rompers around town, including for a brunch date with his girlfriend and her parents.

WEBSTER-CLARK: And you would see people on both sides of the table sort of tapping their friend on the shoulder, turning heads to watch as, you know, I just walk through the restaurant in my romper with my girlfriend's parents, laughing at the spectacle. So I can definitely attest that there are some head-turning elements to it.

RAZ: So this past May, just before they graduated business school, Daniel, Elaine and their two other partners launched a Kickstarter campaign that raised $350,000. It also got them lots of love but, as you might imagine, some haters, too.

WEBSTER-CLARK: You know, maybe 50 percent of people hate it or think it's childish or it looks like pajamas or would never wear it, but 50 percent love it.

RAZ: And if you want to find out more about RompHim, check out our Facebook page. Just search HOW I BUILT THIS on Facebook. And of course, if you want to tell us your story, go to And thanks so much for listening to the show this week. If you want to write us, our email address is You can send us a tweet. It's @HowIBuiltThis. And please do subscribe to our podcast at Apple Podcasts or however you get your podcasts. Our show is produced this week by Ramtin Arablouei, who also composed the music. Thanks also to Neva Grant, Sanaz Meshkinpour, Claire Breen, Lawrence Wu and Jeff Rogers. I'm Guy Raz, and you've been listening to HOW I BUILT THIS from NPR.


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